Four Novels: Nightfall, Down There, Dark Passage, The Moon in the Gutter
The Killer Inside Me
The Hunter (also published as Point Blank)
The Man with the Getaway Face
The Score (to be published in August)
The Green Eagle Score
The Black Ice Score
The Sour Lemon Score
Slayground (to be published in August)
Although they are frequently lumped together, mystery fiction and crime fiction are two very different fish. Mysteries attribute a superior logic to virtue, and turn the pursuit of evil into a civilized and often bloodless game. Crime fiction, on the other hand, acknowledges that law tends to be an attribute of power, rather than virtue, that its exercise can be messy and its boundaries ambiguous. It suggests that the protagonist, and by extension the reader, might just as easily be on the wrong side of the law as on the right. Such representation, literary or otherwise, has rather infrequently been encouraged by those who legislate such things. The myth of Robin Hood was cleaned up; that of Jesse James was made banal; the arch-criminal Fantômas was replaced by the superdetective Judex. The Hays Code set a long list of specific prohibitions for American movies, e.g., the sympathy of the audience was not to be thrown to the side of crime; revenge was not to be justified; methods of crime were not to be explicitly presented.
These doctrines were handed down in 1930 and applied in 1934. The timing was significant. It was the Depression; most Americans were looking in at money from the cold, and crime had wide appeal as an alternative. The pulp magazines were not regulated, however, and writers of the “hard-boiled” school were beginning to throw over the mechanical conventions of the mystery and to blur the distinction between good and evil. Even so, Hammett, Chandler, and the rest continued to rely upon the detective-protagonist. Their heroes, though scarred and disillusioned, were still righters of wrongs. James M. Cain, for all his melodrama and ham-fisted writing, intuitively identified with the criminal, and by doing so tapped into the popular subconscious and spotlit the sex appeal of crime. Cain’s heroes were usually square citizens who got into crime by scratching a persistent itch and having the itch multiply and turn malignant. The masochistic vicarious lure of trouble and guilt grabbed bystanders of capitalism who had the quarter to spend on a paperback.
Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it. The French, with their talent for banding and tagging, dubbed the style noir, referring not only to the dominant color scheme of the expressionist-influenced films, but also to the original roman noir, the gothic from Sade to Poe. The style’s cinematic wing has been well known stateside for at least ten years, even if few seem to have noticed it the first time around, but the novels have yet to receive their due. Most, in fact, have been out of print in English for some thirty years, although they have been preserved abroad, notably in Marcel Duhamel’s Série Noire imprint at Gallimard in Paris.
The reprinting of the work of David Goodis and Jim Thompson fills a significant gap in the continuity of postwar American fiction, a…
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